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Joseph, His Brothers, and Forgiveness

28 Kislev 5758

Over the past few years, as I have reached the age where my mortality has become more obvious to me, I have been struggling with the issue of forgiveness. In some ways, I regret to say, am not as forgiving a person as I would like to be. I still harbor grievances for wrongs done to me years ago and avoid the people who committed these offenses or even the organizations, like schools, where they occurred. I would like to forgive, but it’s hard.

My motives for wanting to forgive are not all altruistic. I find that I pay a price for my lack of forgiveness. I do not like that burden of grievance that I sometimes carry.

So when the Rabbi asked me to give the devar Torah about the Joseph story, I was delighted to have the opportunity to study a situation in which a man and his brothers were forced to confront and resolve a very painful breech in their relationship. Perhaps from Joseph I could learn more about the paths to forgiveness.

As you recall, after two years of drought and famine had spread over the entire middle east, Jacob, in Canaan, sends his sons down to Egypt to buy corn. Arriving at the offices of the Corn Distribution Administration, the brothers meet and bow down to the High Commissioner, Joseph. They don’t recognize him, he has changed so dramatically from the 17 year old they last saw when they sold him to the traders after almost killing them, but he does recognize them.

If we could know what was in Joseph’s mind at this moment, perhaps we could better understand how he dealt with his feelings about the evil that was done to him and the psychological work he will have do to forgive his brothers.

He is now a fully assimilated Egyptian, married to an Egyptian wife, with two sons. He is enormously powerful, his position second only to that of the Pharaoh himself. Now, totally unexpectedly, he is confronted with his brothers, the memory of whom he had long swept into the dark recesses of his mind.

He had cut himself off not only from them but from his father as well, even though he knew how deeply this would hurt him. He had even named one of his sons Menashe, which means “God has made me forget my father’s house.”

As he stares down at the men bowed before him, Joseph has certainly has not forgiven them. Quite likely, he wants to avenge himself on them for what they did to him. What they did was terrible. And yet he probably also would like to see his beloved younger brother Benjamin and his father. I would think that a part of Joseph may even harbor a distant hope of reconciling with his brothers. I think, too, he may want to come to terms with his own role in the events of that awful afternoon many years ago.

So he faces a complex problem. Shall he just tell them who he is and forgive them? No, he could not be ready for that. Shall he pretend he doesn’t know them and treat them like anyone other supplicant? Shall he exact vengeance on them for what they did to him?

I think he does not yet know what he will do. One thing he must realize: without his brothers’ collaboration, it will be very hard for him to reestablish his connection to Benjamin and Jacob. But what path should he take in establishing a new relationship with them, one of forgiveness and acceptance or one of vengeance and retribution?

Uncertain of what to do, I think he decides to play for time. He gives them no indication of his identity but accuses them of being spies. This is a very curious accusation since he, in fact, is the one playing the spy, hiding from them, pretending his doesn’t speak their language so he can overhear their private conversations. Then to give himself more time and to keep them from learning anything about him or doing anything unexpected, he places them in jail. This action is also an expression of his anger towards them, an anger that is reflected in much of his behavior to them for a while. If he never expressed this anger, I find it hard to imagine him ever getting to the point where he could ultimately reconcile with them.

After a few days of thought, he decides to subject them to a series of tests. I think the tests are designed to force his brothers to demonstrate how evil their motives were for trying to get rid of him. As I read the story, their real motives were very different from the motives Joseph attributes to them. I believe they sold him to the traders because they saw him as an arrogant, self centered, manipulative young man who posed a serious threat to their legitimate power and inheritance. From the tests, it appears that Joseph believed that they sold him to the traders because they were money hungry and because they hated his father’s favorite wife’s sons, him and Benjamin. In his memory of what happened years ago, he was the innocent victim. So he sets up these tests for them.

First, by planting their money in their sacks, he will show how their love of money will cause them to take money that is not rightfully theirs; Second, by planting his silver chalice Benjamin’s sack, he will demonstrate how their underlying hatred of Rachel’s sons would cause them to abandon Benjamin in a time of need And by forcing them to leave Benjamin with him while they return to Jacob, he will show how they are indifferent to Jacob’s pain at losing a son.

However, not only does each test fails the purpose of proving that they are evil, they begin to undermine his belief that he was the entirely innocent victim. In each test, the brothers behave in a most exemplary way. In the last test, rather than showing indifference to Jacob’s pain, (as Joseph himself did) Judah shames Joseph with his obviously sincere compassion for Jacob. At this, Joseph’s harsh facade cracks, and he is forced to accept that his brothers are not wicked and inhuman and that they and he share a deep human bond.

Hearing Judah’s courageous argument to spare Jacob the pain of losing Benjamin, Joseph weeps aloud and cries out, I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? His brothers are speechless, so frightened and confused are they by this strange turn of events. He says I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Don’t be grieved nor angry with yourselves that you sold me, for God sent me before you to preserve life, to give you food and save you for a great deliverance. And he kisses his brothers and cries. And after that they all talk with each other.

In this touching scene, Joseph exhibits great grace and generosity. Sometimes to demand an apology from a person who is not in a position to give it as a condition of forgiveness serves only to perpetuate the grievance and guilt. It can be very kind to ease the guilt from the person’s shoulders this way. Even if the person injured doesn’t fully believe this explanation, it can contribute to reconciliation.

But the drawback to this approach becomes apparent. Joseph’s removing the evil his brothers did to him from the realm of human judgment allows him to sidestep a difficult confrontation that could ultimately have been healing. It precludes his expressing his legitimate grievance to them about having been almost murdered and then sold into slavery and precludes their apologizing.

Still, it is encouraging to read that after this interchange, they talked with each other. In all the years that had gone by without contact with his brothers, Joseph’s feeling of grievance and anger never changed. Not until they talked to each other was there a possibility of reconciliation. But it is also true that once they started talking, it still took a few years for them to come to a stable resolution. Time heals, but it takes time for the healing to occur.

Perhaps when Joseph and his brothers talked with each other, the brothers expressed apology and contrition, and Joseph gave them forgiveness. But, with the interest in forgiveness that drew me to this parasha, I was surprised to find that apology and forgiveness are never described, and there is reason to believe that they never occurred.

We are told that years later, when Jacob dies, the brothers worry that Joseph will hate them and fully pay them back for the evil they did to him. So they send him a note saying, your father commanded before he died, that you forgive the trespasses of your brothers for doing you evil. Upon getting this note, Joseph weeps because, I think, he sadly realizes that after all these years they still fear his vengeance and recognize that he has never fully forgiven them.

Still unable to forgive them, yet sensitive to how they are feeling, he now explicitly states his grievance and his judgment. He says, “You meant evil against me, but God made it turn out well, that many lives could be saved. Don’t be afraid, I will keep you and your little ones alive.” I think his open acknowledgment of the evil of their deed in conjunction with his pledge to keep them well makes the reassurance much more credible and allowed them all to live peacefully thereafter.

I read about Joseph to learn about forgiving. I was reminded by his story that there are times when the intention to hurt is so clear and the damage done is so great that forgiveness becomes an unacceptable means to achieving a friendly resolution. Sometimes, in these circumstances, there may still be great value in reconciliation without forgiveness.

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